The History of Blackjack

The modern game of blackjack has its immediate roots in various informal games of chance and skill played in Western Europe hundreds of years ago. That sounds really pretentious, doesn’t it? It might sound better this way: blackjack is a modern American version of some old French and Spanish games.

However you describe it, the game as we play it today is really just the version that became popular in 19th century America. Let’s look at the origins of the game, some details from the games that influenced it, notes on rule and style changes over the years, and the emergence of Web-based gambling.

Blackjack Origins and Early History

To understand how the game developed into the casino classic it is today, you should understand the birth of the game itself.

Two games popular in Western Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries are the traditional grandparents of modern blackjack. We’re talking about "Chemin-de-fer" and "Ferme," now obscure games of chance with rules only slightly similar to our familiar table game.

Chemin-de-fer: From a French phrase meaning “railroad,” Chemin-de-fer would be recognizable to most modern casino fans as baccarat. Chemin-de-fer’s main influence on blackjack is the breaking up of players into “banker” and “player,” which foreshadows the roles of “dealer” and “player” in our modern version.

Ferme: French for “strong,” Ferme apparently resembles the modern game of blackjack way more than Chemin-de-fer, but involved additional betting rounds and gave rights like splitting and doubling down to the dealer only – which is an odd rule to our modern sensibilities.

An explosion in games using playing cards in the middle of the 1400s can be attributed directly to the invention of the printing press. Before Gutenberg’s invention (in 1450), cards had to be hand-painted at great expense to the purchaser. In other words, you had to be rich to play with cards. Games involving pieces of scrap wood or bone were the norm among the hoi palloi.

Once the gambling class had easier access to cards, they started using them for their favorite hobby.

Early Historical Reports

The earliest record of a playing-card game with the name “twenty-one” comes from the writings of Miguel de Cervantes in the 17th century. You may know him as the author of Don Quixote. You probably haven’t’ heard of his story Ronconete y Cortadillo. It’s an otherwise minor work about lovers from different social classes that’s been mostly forgotten because it’s dreadfully boring.

For blackjack fans, it’s important because the lovers casually play a game they call “Veintiuna,” or “twenty-one.” Cervantes says it is played with a Spanish-style deck (a deck without eights, nines, or tens) and that all aces are worth either one or eleven points. Sounds familiar, right? Well, except the part about the altered deck.

(I’d like to point out that a major plot point of the story involves cheating, so it’s nice to know cheating has always been a part of the game.)

Between Cervantes’ story (set in 1569) and the year 1700, the game changed to closely resemble what’s played in casinos all over the world today. It was called Vingt-et-Un which means “twenty-one” in French. This game proved so popular, it was immediately taken up into the cultural history of the French people.

And that’s how the game came to America. Acadians, who’d settled in present-day Newfoundland and parts of Canada, were forced out of that part of the country, moving to parts further south. They brought their vast knowledge of herbs, food, and medicine with them. They also brought twenty-one. More on this later.

How did these early games influence our modern version? For starters, they’re all playing-card games. This was an important distinction at the time, since cards were a new addition to the gambler’s repertoire. Another big resemblance was the use of hierarchical card values, still the most important factor in our version of the game. The intended goal – to get closer to a specific value than your opponent – is the same goal of players today.

Most importantly, the game no doubt remained popular (and spread) because of the built-in skill element. This is ultimately what joins these games on the long spectrum of gaming history – rather than depending on plain old luck, as in the casting of lots or tossing of dice, blackjack players can improve their skill and their likelihood of winning.

How the Game Got Its (American) Name

The Spanish had “thirty-one.” The French had “twenty-one.” The Americans invented a game called … blackjack? What’s up with that name?

After all, the game we play in the casino has nothing to do with the color black or jacks, in particular. Jacks have no special value, nor do black cards, except in the rules of some very obscure specialty titles at online casinos.

It’s not clear when the hand known as blackjack (an ace and a face card) became such a big part of twenty-one. Sources that I respect point to the first World War as the likely time when American and French soldiers and traditions blended all over the world, and I like that theory.

What happened was that the game was made more attractive by the addition of a special payout for a player holding a specific hand – the ace of spades and either black jack, meaning the jack of clubs or spades. Hence, a black jack was more valuable than a mere total of twenty-one points.

Eventually, the requirement was softened so that any hand made up of an ace and a face card earned the special payout, which was also altered by casinos so it didn’t hurt their bottom line as bad. Most games at this early time in US casino history paid out 3:2 for that top hand, while many modern tables are offering a 6:5 or even worse prize for the same hand. Such is the evolution of casino greed.

How Americans Changed Blackjack for the Better

So the Americans ruined the name – so what? They also created the modern version we all know and love. How did they do it? They added two rules. These two rule changes are responsible for the game’s status as “beatable.”

Never before in any of the European versions of the game was the player allowed to see the dealer’s first card before making decisions. That one rule led to the development of sophisticated game strategy. Also never before did dealers have to follow specific behaviors established by the casino. This enhanced strategy as well. The first rules requiring the dealer hit on 16 and stand on 17 took place at this time in the game’s history – another strategic win for the player.

By this time, casino-banked blackjack was well established in Nevada, where we know organized games sharing a common name were available as early as 1931. Once the game became legal, new standards and state controls were needed, as was a government entity to create and enforce them. That led to rule changes and standardizations, which also led to the biggest developments in the game’s history since cheap playing card stock and the cheating tactics of Cervantes – the development of both optimal strategy and card-counting tactics.

Card-Counting, Edward O. Thorp, and the Dawn of Beatable Blackjack

Between legalization and widespread availability in 1931 and the birth of card-counting in 1962, eggheads had three decades to analyze and pick apart the game.

Anecdotal stories told by blackjack players mention a man named Jess Marcum, who may have been using a rudimentary form of card counting in the 1940s when he was repeatedly accused of cheating while playing (and winning at) blackjack. The first book indicating that players were starting to figure out how to combat the casino’s edge was published in 1957 by a group of four smart players: Baldwin, Cantey, Maisel, and McDermott. That book, Playing Blackjack to Win, made explicit references to the development of optimal strategy, and even suggested a method for keeping track of cards may soon appear and help tile the odds in the player’s favor.

Edward O. Thorp’s 1962 book Beat the Dealer took things one step further. Thorp used rudimentary computers to determine that keeping track of certain cards could give the player an advantage over the casino. This was a remarkable discovery, the first of its kind in gaming history.

Thorp was also able to codify this system into something that a reasonably-intelligent person could do in their head. His “ten-count system” was really complicated by today’s standards, but remember that most games in his time were single-deck affairs. Modern eight-deck games and games with other rule variations require a different approach, card-counting wise. Still, what Thorp did was to revolutionize casino gambling. Countless card-tracking methods now exist, all thanks to the work he did decades ago.

Naturally, Thorp’s book (and the hundreds of imitators that came after it) made waves in the industry. After all, it did time on the New York Times Bestseller list, and for a while it was the book to own and read in a certain segment of American society. Casinos saw interest in the game skyrocket. To this day, it is one of the most popular table games all over the world, having spawned all sorts of interest in the popular culture.

Web-Based Blackjack Games

In the post-Beat the Dealer world we live in, few advances in the game have happened that equal what Edward O. Thorp and company did back in the 50s and 60s.

One development that’s certainly worth a mention is the spread of Web-based and mobile gambling all over the world. Since blackjack is such an iconic casino table game, it was a natural fit for the first online casinos in the 1990s. Though far fewer people play blackjack on their laptop or smartphone than play slot machines or video poker, tradition demands that game designers add at least a couple of variants to their libraries.

An interesting side-effect of the proliferation of casino games on the Web is the increased access we now have to otherwise obscure variations. For example, a British version of the Spanish twenty-one, called Pontoon (which is itself a bastardization of the Spanish words “venti y una”) is available from Real Time Gaming. RTG, as it is known, is one of the bigger names in online game design, so the fact that they host Pontoon is kind of a big deal.

Though Pontoon is basically blackjack with worse odds (the dealer doesn’t show any cards and wins on all ties), it is neat to have access to it, especially for a person interested in the history of the game.

Other variants of the game are available for mobile and online play, versions you may have a hard time finding in brick and mortar casinos. Here’s three examples of the variations you can find thanks to the availability of online blackjack:

Caribbean 21 - All aces are worth one point in this variant, and the highest-valued hand is composed of an ace and two face cards. Other rule variations exist, and the end result is that this title plays more like a casino-style poker game than classic blackjack.

Switch - This variant allows players to swap cards between two different hands they’re playing at the same time. It offers really high payouts and is about the wildest version of the classic game I can find.

Face-Up 21 - The main difference between this and the classic game is that you can see both of the dealer’s cards rather than just the one upcard. The downside? Blackjack pays even money. The game is a little more fun for beginners, since it requires less strategy, but it’s not nearly as good a game odds-wise as the standard version.

Blackjack history is as fascinating to me as the game itself. Call me a nerd, but I love learning about the roots of modern games. Learning about a game you risk real money on is never a bad thing, either. Thanks to the ready availability of online trainers, free-play games from online casinos, and real-money action, it’s easier than ever to play the world’s favorite table contest.

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